S7

State of Canada’s Whales

This evaluation reports on the conservation status of whale species in Canada.

Over

%

of Canada’s whales are at risk

 BC, Quebec, and Newfoundland & Labrador have the highest number of whale species.

The greatest threats to Canada’s at-risk whales are habitat loss, ship strikes, noise pollution, and climate change. 

Why does the state of Canada’s whales matter?

Over half of Canada’s whales are at risk.

  • The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has assessed 54% of Canadian whale species as at-risk. One species is now extinct (Gray Whale – Atlantic population). 
  • 17% of Canada’s whales are also of global conservation concern and have been ranked as critically imperilled, imperilled, or vulnerable by NatureServe and/or Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable or Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 
  • BC (23), Quebec (16), and Newfoundland & Labrador (15) are the provinces with the highest number of whale species. 
  • 19% of whale species in Canada assessed by COSEWIC have improved conservation status including the Humpback Whale – North Pacific population and the Beluga Whale James Bay population. These recoveries are primarily the result of ending commercial harvesting.  
  • The main threats to Canadian whale populations vary among species. The most prevalent threats include marine vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss or degradation, chemical and noise pollution, natural resource exploration/extraction, and loss of prey availability or quality. 
  • The effects of climate change on whales are complex and dynamic. Changing sea temperatures have amplified the primary threats for some whales, complicating conservation efforts, while some species are experiencing temporary benefits.

 

Calls to action

Addressing the biodiversity crisis in Canada will require transformative change. See our backgrounder on transformative change for more information. Specific actions for whale conservation include: 

 

Federal, provincial, territorial & Indigenous governments:  

  • Develop a robust National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan to implement the goals and targets of the Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework, with a focus on marine protected and conserved areas and the recovery of threatened species to help safeguard whales and their habitat in Canada. 
  • Effectively manage and restore established protected and conserved areas to protect the habitat for at-risk whales. 
  • Identify and map critical habitat for whales listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. 
  • Restore Indigenous stewardship practices that protect marine diversity and promote ecosystem health and resilience. 
  • Implement vessel strike management measures such as enforcing marine vessels to avoid or slowdown in certain high-risk areas, develop protected areas with sufficient no-access buffer zones, or regulate corridors for vessel traffic to travel. 
  • Promote Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR) managed by the Canadian Coast Guard and establish a means to enforce NOTMAR for ships not following speed and corridor recommendations and provide incentives for those that are. 

Local governments & communities: 

  • Collaborate with larger governmental agencies, Indigenous communities, non-governmental organizations, and local authorities to plan appropriate conservation strategies to protect whales and their habitat. 
  • Educate local mariners of large whale species hotspot areas to avoid. 

Civil societies, community organizations, universities, colleges & museums: 

  • Develop long-term whale monitoring programs for less commonly studied at-risk whale species to record population levels and species geographic distribution patterns to establish species-specific conservation action plans. 
  • Support and advocate for the designation of Marine Protected Areas, Indigenous Protected Conserved Areas and Marine Key Biodiversity Areas that include whales. 
  • Establish warning broadcasts (e.g., Canadian Coast Guard Notice to Mariners – NOTMAR) in identified sensitive and important whale areas that are vulnerable to shipping.  
  • Continue research to develop a better baseline understanding of whale population trends, threats, and habitat requirements for every whale species in Canada.  
  • Educate the public on the current threats to whales and their conservation status. 
  • Continue to research how different whale species and their habitat in Canada will be impacted by climate change and determine solutions that could help populations adapt. 

Businesses & corporations: 

  • Avoid projects that could impact whale species and their habitat (e.g., resource extraction activities) and seek opportunities for ‘nature-positive’ actions that will improve their status.  
  • Use whale spotting pilots on board in whale hotspots. 
  • “Adopt” an at-risk whales and fund communities and organizations that are protecting these species. 

Everyone: 

  • Learn and talk about at-risk whales. 
  • Report whale sightings to appropriate networks (e.g., iNaturalist, WhaleALERT, Orca Network, WhaleReport). 
  • Join societies and local groups that advocate for the conservation of Canadian whales in your area. 
  • Participate in local conservation-focused whale watching events. 

Other information

The impacts of climate change on whale species are complex and dynamic. Changes in sea temperatures has resulted in some species to shift their geographic range (Read 2023). Additionally, while whale species populations like Southern Resident Killer Whales are threatened by the reduction in primary food sources, other species are experiencing temporary benefits of climate change through longer feeding seasons. However, this temporary relief may not sustain species populations as the abundance of prey is sensitive to environmental changes, as predicted for Grey Whale populations (Stewart et al. 2023). 

All whale populations found in Canada have been assessed by COSEWIC at least once. Several whale populations, however, lack critical information on spatial distribution data and changes to population levels, which hinders developing effective conservation management strategies for species in urgent need of protection. 

NatureServe and the IUCN Red List use complimentary, but different criteria for assessing conservation status. Status assessments by NatureServe have been completed for a much larger number of species than IUCN Red List assessments. 

Additional background in species assessments can be found in in our backgrounder on species assessment and these sites:

IUCN Red List

NatureServe

COSEWIC

Confidence and limitations

High confidence – this information is based on published assessments by the IUCN Red List and status ranks assigned by NatureServe. 

Species rankings are maintained and regularly updated by NatureServe and the IUCN and they provide the most comprehensive assessment of species ranks in Canada. Some status rankings may have changed since the query for this evaluation was done. The Red List does not include sub-species, varieties and populations. Populations in NatureServe are based on populations identified through Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessmentsSee our backgrounder on species assessments for more information on the methods used by NatureServe, COSEWIC and the IUCN Red List. 

S5_New sea sponge_Sally Leys

All 5 subpopulations of Killer Whales in Canada have been assessed as at-risk by COSEWIC.

 Photo: microbin_ (iNaturalist).

S5_Hine's Emerald_Bonnie Kinder

Both Bowhead Whale subpopulations are listed as Special Concern.  

Photo: pandbmom (iNaturalist)

Applications and next steps

Large whales are still recovering from the detrimental effects of the commercial whaling industry in the early 1900s which caused global whale species abundances to nosedive. While the threat of over-hunting has ceased, whales now face a growing number of threats (e.g., climate change, increase in ship strikes, noise pollution) which put many species at greater risk of extinction in Canada. Since not all whales are vulnerable to the same threats, improving our understanding of the current state of Canadian whale populations and the varying threats that each species faces is vital to develop effective actions for conservation planning and management.  

As predators high up on the food web, whales act as bioindicators, meaning they are sensitive to changes within their environment, which is helpful to monitor for the health and ecological integrity of the ocean. Therefore, whales are important species to monitor and protect to maintain healthy marine ecosystems. Any gaps in information reduces the ability to assess the conservation status of whales accurately and can therefore negatively impact species that urgently require resources for conservation. As the threat of changing sea temperatures in Canadian oceans and other effects of climate change persist, it is critical to continue monitoring efforts of whale species population levels and how population ranges may shift. Whales travel vast geographical areas making it difficult for researchers to locate wildlife and track population dynamics in offshore or remote areas. The use of citizen science efforts by reporting whale sightings with phone apps (e.g., iNaturalist and WhaleReport) remains a cost-effective method of data collection to monitor whales (Scott et al. 2024), however this applies only to species that travel near the shores of heavily human-populated areas. 

Future reports will include a more detailed assessment of threats and gaps in critical habitat identification and protection. 

Related Evaluations

S1: Edge of Extinction

S2: Globally Threatened Species 

S3: Species at Risk 

For More Information

Contact us for more information or for a copy of the data at https://shapeofnature.ca/take-action/ or wcscanada@wcs.org

How to Cite

Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada. 2024. State of Whales (version 1.0), in SHAPE of Nature. https://shapeofnature.ca

Prepared by: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (Meagan Simpson, Dan Kraus) 

Reviewers: Wildlife Conservation Society Canada (Stephen Insley, William Halliday) 

Data sources & Methods 

 For this evaluation, whale was defined to include species classified under the infraorder, Cetacea, a taxonomic group comprised of marine mammals under the Order Artiodactyl  

The NatureServe Biotics database was used to identify the national and global status and range of species in Canada. Whale species that enter Canadian waters accidentally were not included in this analysis. 

NatureServe Explorer: Select Location as “Canada”. Under “Classification”, search = “Animalia” + “Craniata” + “Mammalia” + “Cetacea”. The query includes subspecies, varieties, and populations, and species with provisional and nonstandard taxonomy. The query was generated on January 2, 2024, and is available in XL format. 

See our backgrounder on species assessments for more information on the methods used by NatureServe, COSEWIC and the IUCN Red List. 

Updates

This evaluation is updated every year on World Whale Day (the third Sunday in February). Next update in early 2025. 

Species

S1 Edge of Extinction

S2 Globally Threatened Species

S3 Species at Risk

S4 Endemic Species

S5 Knowledge of Species

S6 State of Canada's Trees

S7 State of Canada's Whales

S8 State of Canada's Frogs

S9 Migratory Species

Habitats

H1 Globally Threatened Ecosystems

H2 Wetland Loss

Actions

A1 Protected & Conserved Areas

A2 Recovery Plans for Species at Risk

Policies

P1 Biodiversity Laws, Policies & Plans

P2 Provincial & Territorial Species at Risk Laws

P3 Delays in Protecting Species at Risk